I was woken out of a dead sleep at midnight by my mom shouting across to me from my parents' floathouse. I got dressed in a hurry and stepped out into the February chill. When I got to my parents' place my dad was putting on outside clothes. They told me my nephew Sterling had called--his dad's skiff had gotten away. Sterling had gone searching for it, some of the time wading, almost swimming--in February!--in a bay that a large, snow-fed creek empties into, but he hadn't been able to find it.
In Southeast Alaska, out here where there are no roads and all travel is done by water, a person's skiff is their lifeline, as I mentioned in the previous blog on skiffs. It's the only way to travel and the only way to get supplies. This was a pretty expensive welded-aluminum work skiff, too, so it was no wonder Sterling was stressed out by its loss. Especially since there was a stiff wind blowing out of the bay. It could push the skiff right out of the protected waters and end up anywhere, in miles and miles of uninhabited wilderness. Not to mention being battered against our mostly rock shoreline, since gales were forecasted.
So he'd called us to ask if we'd run down the five miles to where he was in Bear Creek to see if we could spot it. Even though we knew the odds were against it, we told him we'd give it a try. It wasn't until my dad and I were in our skiff and maneuvering out of our little bight that we realized that it was going to be even harder than we'd expected. It was raining and the night was pitch black with a new moon. It was almost impossible, even next to shore, to detect where the land met the water. And we had to navigate past rocks, reefs and sand bars to get to where Sterling was.
My night vision was a little better than my dad's, so I directed him away from the shore. But with it raining and both of us wearing glasses, we were close to blind. still we couldn't take our time getting down there--every minute counted. So my dad pushed the throttle up and we headed into the wind with a pretty severe chop slamming us. We hoped that there wouldn't be any drift in our way--and that we wouldn't hit the wandering skiff. We couldn't see the water in front of us.
Thankfully, when we cleared a couple of rocky points of land and got farther out in the bay, we had a direct line of sight to Bear Creek, and Sterling, bless him, had turned on his father's 12 million candlepower spotlight and pointed it out toward us. It was the only spot of light anywhere in front of us. My dad put the bow on it and we made a beeline for it, praying the whole time that we wouldn't hit anything and that we'd see the rocks and reef that guard Bear Creek before we struck them.
When it felt like we should be closing in on the entrance to Bear Creek I strained my eyes as hard as I could to see the reef and large rock that bar the entrance, but it was impossible. I've never been out in such black conditions and I've been out on the water many times at night.
At one point I looked behind us and Sterling's spotlight gave me a glimpse of the land we'd passed and to my shock and horror I thought I detected the reef that protected Bear Creek. I looked to my left and saw a vague silhouette of trees close by. I shouted to my dad and he slowed instantly.
We were inside Bear Creek, close to shore. When I shone a flashlight into the water under the skiff we found that we were in dangerously shallow water and shallowing rapidly. I ran up to the bow to be able to direct my dad where to go to get into the creekbed channel where the water was deeper. Up there I was buffeted by the wind--it was blowing close to sixty miles per hour and my dad was having a hard time maneuvering at a slow speed into the driving whitecaps. But as I stood there I heard the wind howling off metal. That's an unmistakable and alien sound in the wilderness. I yelled at my dad that the skiff had to be nearby.
For the time being, though, we were fully taken up with trying not to foul our prop or beach ourselves on a sand bar. The tide was going out and the wind was pushing it out even faster. We'd be stranded in no time if we weren't careful.
When we finally got in the blacker water of the channel, both of us shaking from the adrenaline rush, we shone our lights around, trying to find the skiff. To our amazement we had stopped straight across from where it had beached itself on a sandbank, only about twenty feet away! The odds on that, in all that blackness and driving wind and how large that part of the bay at the creek's mouth is, are pretty much impossible.
We maneuvered up to it and I leaped out with a coil of rope and tied the skiff to a rootwad. Sterling could come and get it in the morning when the tide came in and floated it again.
Now we just had to find our way back home.
We couldn't make it up the rapidly draining flats to where Sterling was in his dad's cabin, so we carefully felt our way out the entrance and back on the blackness of the bay. Now the spotlight was behind us, so we couldn't use it as a beacon. But, happily, up ahead of us, only a mile off the point where we live, was a buoy marker light on McHenry Ledge blinking every five seconds.
We pointed the bow at that, keeping well offshore to avoid the rocks and reefs, and started praying again that we wouldn't hit anything. Other than that blinking light everything was black in front of us, with occasional sparks of of phosphorous to either side. The water had gotten rougher while we were in Bear Creek and we were taking a lot of icy spray.
The return journey seemed quicker. We pulled in closer to shore when we approached what we felt had to be our point. And then, suddenly, we saw the Narrow Point light blinking white in the black distance. It's over near Prince of Wales Island. We'd somehow overshot home and were out on Clarence Strait! (A name to reckon with in these parts, not a body of water you want to be on in the dark with a storm rising.) We slowed and backtracked carefully, looking for the narrow opening to our bight. We should have seen my parents' house lights to guide us, but everything was black. We shone our lights but the rain was so thick that it reflected the light back at us and gave us only a blurry image of rocks and trees.
We tried turning into what looked like an opening and quickly faced a wall or rocks and rapidly shallowing bottom. I yelled at my dad to back up, but with the wind blowing and the tide racing, he had a hard time getting us out of harm's way.
Both of us have been driving skiffs around this point for forty years and we were completely lost! It was a surreal moment and brought home to me just how scary the wilderness can be. I don't know about my dad, but I was praying pretty hard that we'd find home that night.
Then, suddenly, out of all that blackness in every direction, the house lights popped up in front of us. We thankfully turned the skiff into the entrance and made our way up to my parents' floathouse. We had just enough tide under us to make it.
When we got inside the house, drenched and probably borderline hypothermic, we told my mom about getting lost. She said she had a curious thing to report about that. After we left she'd turned off the house lights to conserve battery power and went down to the bedroom to get warm. Then, after a while, she started to hear a phantom phone ring from the living room. She knew it wasn't really ringing, but finally she got up and went back to the front room and turned on the lights. That's when we saw the lights come on and found our way home.
We called Sterling and let him know we'd found the skiff and where it was. He was so grateful and thankful.
I guess we all were.
The year before that, in May, my parents, me and Stelring took a ferry trip. We had to take the skiff to Ketchikan to get to the ferry and then take the skiff back home on the return trip. We had hundreds of pounds of luggage and we'd gone on a grocery shopping spree to stock up, since it's so hard to get to a store where we are. We'd bought more than 250 pounds of groceries. With the four of us, plus all the extra weight, we rode pretty low in the water and had a hard time getting up on step so that we'd plane. (Race along on the surface of the water.)
The first stretch of water, Behm Canal, was smooth, but a fog on the horizon kept us from being able to see what was happening at Camaano Point, one of the worst stretches on Clarence Strait.
We got to Camaano and the fog lifted, giving us a beautiful, sunny day. Unfortunately, we started to get some chop, too. Only about a two-foot chop at first, but the farther up Clarence Strait we went, toward home, the worse it got, with a stiff northerly blowing in our faces. Pretty soon we had whitecaps and began shipping water steadily. We were soaked, saturated with salt spray by the time we reached Ship Island, the halfway mark. We were running with the plug out but there was so much water coming in the skiff wasn't draining properly. My dad decided it was too dangerous to continue.
So we pulled into the shore, one of the few places along this side of Clarence Strait's rocky shoreline where you could do that. It was a steep gravel beach washed by a heavy surge. We decided to have a picnic and see if the weather would abate if we gave it enough time. Sometimes tide change can moderate the wave action, if the tidal current goes with the wind rather than against it.
The beach was wild and remote with huge, staggered gravel dunes shaped by countless winter storm-driven waves. At the top of the dunes were strange, high canyons of granite with stunted, windblown trees clinging to the tops of them. The dark blue strait spread out in all directions, stopped only by the vast bulk of Prince of Wales Island with its snowpeaked, castellated mountains that protect us from the ocean.
Our first priority was to find enough rope to anchor the skiff out, since it was getting a thrashing on the beach in the big surge. We hadn't brought any spare rope with us, but that didn't discourage us. Sterling and I searched along the beach and sure enough we found a coil of knotted rope, probably lost from a fishing boat. We carefully unknotted and uncoiled it and cut out the rotten pieces. We were left with a thirty-foot length that let us push the skiff off the beach and drop the anchor, with our beachcombed rope as a mooring line.
We ate some lunch and dozed on the sun-warmed gravel, the snowcapped mountains across from us and the rich blue strait glittering in the sunlight, with lofty clouds sailing high. Bald eagles soared overhead and sea lions roared at us as they swam by. The steady rhythm of the surf put us to sleep.
A while later I woke up to the sound of a skiff pounding by. To our delight it turned out to be my oldest brother Jamie, Sterling's dad, headed north for home, like us, and running the shore. He was close enough that he saw me immediately when I waved. He cut his speed to approach our spot. We wasted no time in transferring some of the luggage and Sterling, to his skiff. Once our load was lightened we were able to head into the waves and take a lot less spray.
We got home before the tide was high, so my parents stayed in the skiff with the groceries and luggage, while I waded to the dock. Pretty soon the tide floated them right to their front door where they could unload with a minimum of energy. By then we were all pretty beat.
I think that impromptu picnic is one of our favorite skiff adventures.
But there are plenty more....
Tara Neilson (ADOW)